Nobody remembers the team in second.
Penn baseball knows this better than anyone: the past three years have been spent in the dreaded No. 2 spot. But now, at long last, the Quakers have finally gotten over the hump.
After a ten-year absence, Penn has returned to the top of the Lou Gehrig Division and the Ivy League Championship Series.
Three years of second place, including losses in 2014 and 2015 in a pair of one-game playoffs to Columbia, are over. This time, the Quakers finally overcame their rivals in a 6-3 win over the Lions.
The Quakers (23-20, 12-8 Ivy) got a strong six-inning performance from senior pitcher Jake Cousins and plenty of run support from the heart of the lineup, including three homers. Columbia (18-23, 12-8) hung around within striking distance the whole game, but never created a meaningful challenge for the Quakers.
Penn wasted little time, scoring two in the top of the first inning. After junior Andrew Murnane roped a one out triple, Ivy POY candidate and senior Tim Graul smashed a homer over the left field fence.
“It was huge,” senior pitcher Jake Cousins said. “We’ve been doing it all year long: scoring two or three runs in the first couple innings. Then I just get to go out there and attack.”
Cousins’ aggressive pitching paid dividends as the senior’s six-inning, three-run, six-strikeout performance earned him his 20th career win, enough to put him alone in third place all-time in school history. Cousins was always in command of the situation. Even when he pitched himself into jams, he was able to battle through to get the necessary outs.
“We were able to get ahead early [in the count].” Cousins said. “[Sophomore Matt O’Neill] called a great game."
Cousins was aided in this effort by some timely defense – Penn turned three double plays, and they all came at important times, including helping Cousins out of jams in the first and sixth. The Quakers' stingy defense made no big mistakes: they didn’t commit any errors and limited the Columbia baserunners all game long.
The frustration felt by Columbia was also felt by their fans. After every pickoff attempt, the home crowd jeered Cousins loudly. In fact almost everything Cousins did produced loud jeers, whether it was leaving part of his shirt untucked, pausing too long between pitches, or even simply pitching well. Countless Cousins pitches were booed after the umpire called them strikes. Clearly, none of it fazed the righty.
“We kinda got used to it,” Cousins said. “It doesn’t really get to you. Once you get in the game you can’t really hear anyone else.”
The Penn lead after the first frame would hold: the difference between the two teams was always at least two runs. The second inning featured the second dinger of the game, this one courtesy of O’Neill, who lofted a 2-2 offering over the wall in left.
Columbia made it 3-1 in the bottom of the fourth when senior Shane Adams hit an RBI single to left. Adams would later save a few runs with a highlight-reel, bases loaded diving catch in centerfield. The other Columbia runs came in the fifth and seventh, from a solo shot from junior catcher Matt Karo and some small ball baserunning including a pair of wild pitches.
In the meantime, the Red and Blue bats responded in the top of the fifth. A leadoff triple from Daniel Halevy was followed by a double that bounced off the wall in center right. Sophomore Matt Tola would come around to score after his double on two consecutive sacrifice flies to the warning track. In the fifth and sixth innings, it seemed like the Quakers were targeting that particular patch of turf: Tola’s double, fellow sophomore Sean Phelan’s homer, and a number of long outs were all hit to the same right-center area.
Bleday was stellar in relief for the Quakers, earning the save for his scoreless three innings of work, and benefiting from a clutch double play in the bottom of the ninth.
“It feels good,” Graul said. “It feels good to get a chance to play for a championship.”
The Quakers know their work isn’t over. Yes, they finally got the “gorilla off their back” to use Graul’s words, but the ultimate goal is an Ivy League title. Penn will hope the good feelings continue next weekend in New Haven in the three-game Ivy League Championship Series against Yale.
For now though, it’s good to celebrate being out of the shadow of second.